Another Canadian Follow-up
To help Morse on his Canadian coverage, Steven Chase of The Globe and Mail once again has another update on the Canadian Census controversy. If you haven’t been following, the Conservatives in charge have scrapped a mandatory long-form census for 20% of Canadians, thereby appearing particularly small government AND giving a hard time to researchers who use the long form data for things such as social services. The Conservatives have now refused requests to reverse that decision, presumably to please the Conservative political base (who were angered by Conservatives’ recent deficit records.)
Tories refuse to reverse census decision
Ottawa — From Friday’s Globe and Mail
Published on Thursday, Jul. 15, 2010 2:46PM EDT
Last updated on Thursday, Jul. 15, 2010 10:53PM EDT
They’ve been in power for four long years, but Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have found a way to cast themselves as anti-government populists once more.
The Tories are refusing to reverse a decision to scrap the mandatory long-form census questionnaire – even in the face of broadening opposition – calling it an unwarranted intrusion into Canadians’ personal lives.
The controversy has morphed into a culture war skirmish between the Harper government and critics, one that allows the Tories – despite running record deficits – to paint themselves as anti-Ottawa for the red-meat Conservative political base vital to winning elections. The most hard-core in this group were horrified when the Tories went deep into debt to finance a two-year stimulus program.
While every household must answer basic questions when the census-takers come calling, about one-fifth of Canadians have traditionally been required, under threat of fines or jail time, to respond to a lengthy list of 50-plus enquiries about their home, work lives and ethnicity.
Not any more. And those who rely on the treasure trove of data generated – from social scientists to health researchers, businesses and charities – are warning in ever-louder voices that this will severely undermine the quality and accuracy of census information.
Asked to explain why this matters to the core Conservative constituency, one senior Tory strategist said, on background: “It’s all about the nanny state. Why is it mandatory to tell the government how many bedrooms are in your house?”
The Conservatives are hard-pressed to prove Canadians are substantially concerned about the mandatory long form or have faced significant repercussions. Canada’s federal privacy watchdog says it received only three complaints about the census in the past decade: two in 2006 and one in 2001.
But Industry Minister Tony Clement said on Thursday that Canadians worried about the meddlesome arm of the state aren’t likely to bring their concerns to the Ottawa-based Office of the Privacy Commissioner. They are likely to tell their MPs.
“If you’re concerned about government intrusion, you’re not likely to complain to another organ of government,” Mr. Clement said in an interview. “They would see it as compounding the issue if they complained.”
The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is an arms-length body that is outside the control of the federal government. But Mr. Clement said this distinction is lost on many. “No offence to the Privacy Commissioner, but most people wouldn’t understand that [this] person is an independent actor.”
The concerns the Tories seek to mollify are similar to the sentiments that drove the right-wing Tea Party movement in the United States to call for a boycott of the 2010 U.S. census.
Mr. Clement dismisses the comparison. “I didn’t know about the larger trends. I have no idea what the Tea Party stands for or what they are saying.”
He rejects the idea there’s an “ideological boundary” to resentment about the mandatory long-form census. “It’s people … who just want to be left alone a little bit.”
The Industry Minister said Statistics Canada has assured him enough steps are being taken to make up for the absence of the mandatory long form and ensure the quality of the census is maintained. During the 2011 census, one third of households will receive a voluntary long-form questionnaire. Ottawa will mount an ad campaign to encourage responses.
On Thursday, the Canadian Medical Association Journal joined the protest, saying in an editorial that scrapping the mandatory long form is a case where “ideology trumps evidence.” It warned that the changes could hurt health-care planning and delivery.
Mr. Clement said the medical journal and other critics should trust Statistics Canada.